Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Bible is full of conflicting references to wine and grapes. After the great flood, when the earth had dried out and the animals departed the ark, the righteous Noah immediately took up the task of planting the first vineyard.  Unfortunately, the story quickly went south, when new wine got the better of Noah. As the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land, two spies, Joshua and Caleb were told to explore the territory. They returned, with a cluster of ripe grapes which was so large that the two men carried it between them, hanging from a staff.  It was a sign that the land was very good, but it was also a sign that the people living in the land were big and powerful.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the wisest man in the world praised the attributes of wine, mind you, but this was also the man who had 700 wives who lead him away from God.  In the New Testament, St. Paul recommended red wine to his young disciple Timothy for the sake of stomach, but then he warned of drinking too much. And of course, we read in St. John’ gospel that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into an overwhelming amount of the finest wine, for in spite of its darker side, wine was God’s sign of abundance and joy.

Those conflicting lessons, however, were never taught in the Lutheran Sunday School of my youth. Instead, we were sheltered from them. We could joke about grapes, such as, “What did the grape say when the elephant sat on it?  Nothing.  It just gave out a little whine.” Or “Why aren’t grapes ever lonely?  Because they come in bunches.”  But we could never talk highly about the fruit. On more than one occasion, our Sunday School Superintendent Marion Knutson, may she rest in peace, or be on a fine adventure in heaven, told us all that when she arrived at the pearly gates, the first thing she was going to ask Jesus was why he turned water into wine.

Miss Knutson would have been embarrassed by the words spoken in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. “I am the vine, and my Father is the vine grower.”  These were the words spoken by Jesus on the night he was betrayed. They were a part of the same teaching which included washing the feet of his disciples and the command to love one another, he led them through a final meal, and walked with them to the Garden of Gethsemane where he was later arrested. By the time the sun found its way again to mid-day, Jesus had been crucified, leaving his disciples in confusion and despair.  So why would Jesus choose on such a fateful night choose to use such an unusual metaphor of himself as a vine and God as vinedresser?

Truthfully, I don’t think that this passage has so much to say about wine and grapes, so much as it speaks  about God’s desires for you and me to be faithful to him even in the dormant seasons of life. My friends, that is the lesson that I would like to share with you this morning.

Growing up in southern Minnesota, where Concord grapes were used exclusively for Welch’s jelly and Mogen David altar wine, I didn’t know much about grape production or viticulture. But when I served as a pastor in Bratislava, Slovakia, I suddenly discovered that I was living in a wine growing region rich in history and tradition.  The ancient Roman were attributed with cultivating the first grapes along the Danube River. For centuries families had terraced the land, and studied the soil and movements of the sun. Generation after generation they tended the decades old, sometimes centuries old vines to produce the finest grapes.  Their vines’ roots went  deep into the earth and could withstand many changes in weather.

I actually had a vinedresser in the congregations whose vineyard was just outside the city limits. This is not simply owner, but the specialist involved in the daily pruning and cultivation of the grapevines. As with any specialist, the vinedressers labors  nearly year-round to help ensure the vineyard has a successful harvest.  I once foolishly asked him whether winter was the best time to take a vacation away, like snowbirds in Minnesota.  He looked as me shocked.  Winter was actually the busiest time of the year. Apparently for the vinedresser, winter is the all important season of quiet preparation for future growth- and that means pruning.  As weeding is to gardeners, so pruning is to vinedressers. Pruning removes dead, diseased or stunted branches to make room for new growth, ultimately leading to a healthy and productive vine.  In the winter, when the vine is dormant, the wine grower will actually remove 80% of the old branches to make for the new.  Cutting away the old, he throws it to the ground for kindling to be burned.  He cuts back the branches to the spot where buds can be seen, and then he chooses the most promising branches and ties them metal wires and trellises for growth.  The trellises themselves may need to be rebuilt to hold the growing branches and eventual grapes.  After the vines have been trimmed back, they look more like stumps than vines, but the vinedresser knows the possibilities of the vine and branches that will come. The vinedresser also knows that if he doesn’t prune the vine and branches, new growth will be stunted. Its energy, instead, will be wasted on branches that will never produce fruit.  Mind you, this is not a once in a lifetime task.  The vinedresser must do this work  every year.

Now it’s easy to misinterpret St. John’s passage on pruning and cutting and burning as one of criticism, discipline and judgment. But having known vinedressers personally, I have grown to understand the vinedresser’s perspective on their work.  This is an act of faith and promise.

My friends, the vinedresser knows what the future branch can become and the fruit that it can bear. Jesus said these words to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, because he knew what was going to happen to him and to his disciples. They would be cut down by his crucifixion, but he was assuring them that this was not a senseless purging and cutting.  His crucifixion would allow them to thrive and even flourish.  They might be cast out from the community and driven from the synagogue for abiding in him and his word, but they would survive.  Such pruning was not a punishment for failing God, but it was intended to foster a more abundant fruitful life.

Of course, we all experience winters in of life where God’s “pruning” challenges our ways and beliefs. Perhaps it feels like you’ve been cut down by tragedies great or small, or perhaps you been cut down by disappointment and despair, you’ve been cut down by circumstances beyond your control and you feel you have been left to wither and be discarded.  And yet there is a promise in Jesus’ word, “If you abide in me, I will abide in you.”  Yes, it is Jesus’ assurance that no matter what happens to you, and  no matter how life appears to you right now, God will bring all things to a good end.  That is not to say that everything happens for a reason.  Rather, it is Jesus’ promise that no matter what happens, God will work all things for good, for those who abide in him.

It was a common phrase among pastors and youth workers in the rural Minnesota of my youth. “Bloom where you’re planted.”  You and I could learn something from that old adage.  God has planted you, cultivated you and pruned you to be fruitful.  He knows the power of the resurrection and new life.  But how often do you overlook where you have been planted and what you have been created to be?  In those awkward moments when you feel that your faith is struggling, you may need to ask yourself simply, Am I truly connected to the vine or not?   Are the people around me the best people to support my purpose?  Do the structures around me allow me to thrive?   Is there anything that needs to shift, begin or end so that I can abide in Christ and he in me?

Why is that question so important you may ask?  It’s an interesting observation, but the wood of vine itself doesn’t produce fruit.  The branches connected to the vine produce the grape..  In this way, Jesus, the true vine is actually placing the joy and wonder of the harvest on you, his friends and disciples.  You are the branches and you will produce the fruit.  Yes, wherever you are planted, you will make all the difference.

There is a wonderful line spoken by the young Indian hotel owner in the movie the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that is worth repeating.  Life was not falling into place for a particular senior guest as she had hoped, and so the young owner said innocently and prophetically, “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”

My friends, Christ is the true vine and you are the branches.  Do not be impatient- especially if you are still wandering through the long winter of life.  Abide in him, in his word, in his teaching, even in the dormant time of pruning, and when you are wondering whether there will ever be fruitful days again, or what God’s purpose is for you and your life,  be assured that the best is yet to come.  “Yes, in Jesus’ hands, every thing will be all right in the end… and if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.